Bearing the Emotional Weight of Christian Leadership

My wonderful father was a member of my church when he passed away at home. My mother awoke next to him in the middle of the night to discover that he was gone. Traumatized, she called me. I got dressed, called 911, and raced the fifteen miles to their home. I spent those few minutes trying to get my pastoral thoughts in order. Ministry to my mother. Ministry to my wife and kids. Ministry to my sister and extended family. Ministry to my church body. Deaths in small churches are almost always a challenge to the Shepherd’s soul, but this was my own father. For the next six days I carried the load of my responsibilities without wavering, including his funeral and graveside service. I did my job as a son and pastor without fail, and without breaking down emotionally. People remarked about my strength, but that is what leaders do. We deny our emotional reality – fear, anger, anxiety, and more, that we might walk our sheep through the valley of the shadow of death.

Until the weight of all that we carry crushes us.

Some of us may even believe that emotional unrest is not allowed in the lives of pastors or ministry leaders.

Many who are reading this have already experienced broken mental or emotional health. We have cracked, in private or in public. What we perceive as emotional weakness may embarrass us and makes us feel disqualified for ministry. If our emotional brokenness is prolonged, it can make us ineffective. Some of us have not broken down yet, but we are aware that we are angrier, more discouraged, or more resentful than we should be as leaders. Some of us may be in denial about our mental and emotional health. Some of us may even believe that emotional unrest is not allowed in the lives of pastors or ministry leaders. To admit to such things is tantamount to denying that we are called by God.

The Bible speaks clearly and profusely about the human condition, and leaders are never excluded from the equation. In fact, the weight of leadership is often the cause of emotional pain. Think about this verse which interrupts Elijah’s mental and emotional torment, “…while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (I Kings 19:4 ESV). This is a suicide note, or at least a death request. It comes in the middle of some of the greatest stories of the Bible, but Elijah was at the end of his emotional rope. We remember from Luke 22 that the distress of Christ was so great that he was sweating blood! Look at the Psalms of David and consider that he was writing out of his personal pain and anxiety. Elijah, David, and Jesus are leaders and examples to us. God’s Word is not ashamed to address the reality that our hearts, minds, and souls can be overwhelmed by the responsibilities of ministry. Emotionally healthy leaders do not deny emotional pain and triggers. Emotionally healthy leaders embrace emotional pain and triggers, and we process these realities in God-ordained ways.

An emotionally healthy leader remembers God

From the story of Jonah, we see an important truth. Jonah describes his descent in chapter two. First, he is in the water, struggling to keep his head above. Then, he is under the water, disconnected from hope. From there, he becomes trapped by seaweed, further entangling him and making him more desperate. Then, he describes himself imprisoned by bars at the bottom of the sea. But then, a miracle happens – Jonah remembers God, who reaches down to him and pulls him from his prison of pain. David echoes this in the psalms, “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:17,18 ESV). Peter tells us that if our lives are not defined by healthy ideals, then we are, “near-sighted and blind, and have forgotten that we are cleansed from our sin” (II Peter 1:3-15). Each of these examples encourages us to remember God. An emotionally healthy leader always remembers that we can do nothing on our own. Our strength is not in our office, or skill, or character. It is in God. When we struggle, we go to God. Life is hard. The life of a ministry leader is very hard. An honest assessment of our struggles is necessary in order that we might remember God with a genuine sense of our weakness, and His strength.

An emotionally healthy leader rejects isolation

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity, (Proverbs 17:17 ESV). Leaders always need the support of those who have their best interests in mind. When Moses held the Israelite’s hope in his uplifted arms, he could not have finished his work with the assistance of Aaron and Hur. These men not only loved Moses, but they believed in his calling. Emotionally healthy leaders need support from a limited, but proven, circle of people. We can make the mistake of pride by trusting in our own strength and refusing to share our emotional burdens. We can make the mistake of faithlessness by sharing our emotional hurts too freely and with too many people. Emotionally healthy leaders know exactly who will lift their arms, and they trust fully that God will hear their prayers.

An emotionally healthy leader takes time to sharpen the axe.

If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed, (Ecclesiastes 10:10 ESV). Strength and wisdom must be used cooperatively in the life of an effective leader. Solomon’s advice in this short verse is that a leader must take time away from our work to sharpen the primary tool of our ministry – ourselves. The Golden Goose must be fed rather than consumed. Let’s consider a few things we might do to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed and used up by ministry.

Spend time becoming more self-aware. Devote an hour or so each week to journaling a prayer and meditation practice that focuses on a passionate goal of getting to know yourself and your relationship with Jesus. Ponder your emotional state and critical questions involving your sense of self. What am I worried about? Who makes me nervous? What sin am I concealing from everyone? Our capacity for effective ministry is no greater than our personal relationship with Jesus. Be honest during this hour and seek confession and restoration. Get good at asking God to supply the needs of your soul. Matthew 11:28 is true for ministers, too.

You might take a personality profile. I recommend the OCEAN profile available at It costs about ten dollars and will provide a printed report of about 20 pages. You can link your results to your spouse’s profile. This is the only online profile I use in counseling.

Purge unimportant activities from your schedule.  Steven Covey famously framed this idea as, “putting first things first.” A leader’s schedule can be consumed by activities which are not urgent and not important. We miss the reality that it is not our schedules which are consumed, it is ourselves. Worrying about unimportant things will steal the time we need to attend to vital concerns. You can adopt 30-minute meeting windows instead of the sacred 60-minute meeting. You can turn five individual meetings into a small group. Peter Scazzero says that we cannot do more activity for God than our relationship with God can sustain. Twenty-four hours is the exact amount of time it takes to accomplish God’s perfect will in your life in one day. If you need more than that, you are at risk of being in an emotional crisis.

Maintain a life/ministry balance. You have a home-life that in many senses must be protected from the demands of your ministry. You will create emotional distress by not setting boundaries. Not everything is an emergency. You need to be available for hospital calls and such, but most conversations need to be set aside until office hours. IF your family feels valued and protected, you will be protected from emotional crises at home. You can also be assured that you are sharing a good witness to your church body. They need to prioritize their families as well.

The key to being emotionally healthy as a leader is to always remember that we are human, and we will face emotionally draining days and events. When our emotional wires are stripped down, we are liable to short-circuit. This is akin to the “check engine” light on our automobile’s dash. Emotional awareness will guide us to seek the problem rather than stabbing the light with a screwdriver! 

Darrin Crow has been the lead pastor of HEART of Junction Church since it was planted in 1998.He has used his M.A. in Counseling Psychology throughout his ministerial career, and continues to counsel with individuals and couples as a key part of his pastoral duties. Darrin recently authored his second book, Understanding Biblical Mental and Emotional Health 101: A starting place for finding peace by thinking biblically, available online through multiple book sellers.



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